Best Of :: La Vida
There is only one chef in the Valley who would have no qualms about referring to the majority of the men in the culinary world as "10-foot-high tokes."
With her cropped hair, unedited demeanor, eclectic art collection, and some of the best leg tattoos around, Silvana Salcido Esparza is clearly as badass as they come. Oh, and she's also one of the Valley's best-known and most respected chefs. Esparza owns and runs Barrio Café with her partner, Wendy Gruber, and serves up some of the best "Mexican-inspired" cuisine, as she calls it, that we've ever had.
It says, "Save water, drink tequila" in a footnote on her menu, but Esparza's secret, she says, is love. From the enchiladas del mar to the decadent slow-roasted pork with achiote rojo and sour orange with salsa Yucateca, Esparza puts her heart and soul into her food. "You cook with love," she says, and she makes sure of it every day (if she's angry or upset, she says, her food refuses to turn out right).
A baker's daughter from Merced, California, Esparza has her mother's recipes memorized on her heart, as she puts it, and she puts her father's bread on the table for every meal served at Barrio Café. She spent six years working in a bank in Miami, Florida counting the cash brought in daily by cartels, before she gave it up and went home when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She spent a year learning about her Mexican roots through her mother's food and helping her fight the disease before taking her place at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in the early '90s.
Then, in 2000, just as she turned 40, she quit her job, cashed in her 401(k) and sold or gave away everything she had but her '68 VW. She headed to Mexico to spend the next year of her life learning from — and cooking with — the people of Mexico. She slept on mats in huts in tiny villages and went from place to place by bus. She told the people she met that she had come to Mexico to get in touch with her soul, and to find her voice. She did.
Esparza has taken a true Phoenix barrio, at 16th Street and Thomas, where her restaurant is located, and turned it into one of the Valley's culinary draws — all without selling out, or compromising her roots, or becoming any less badass.
"We put it together with love," she says of the restaurant. And we love to eat there.
To paraphrase an old saying about a dead cat, you could swing a baseball bat in this town and hit a piñata. Many grocery stores sell them, and you can easily cruise 16th Street in central Phoenix and find a wide selection. But would it be wide enough? This year, our little princess didn't want a princess piñata. She wanted a piglet. And not just any swine would do; she wanted Piglet — you know, from Winnie-the-Pooh. After exhausting our brick-and-mortar possibilities, we got online and found Arizona Piñatas. We called, and a cheerful employee complied, agreeing that Piglet would be ready by Friday. And would we like it delivered? What? We just about dropped the iPhone, we were so happy. Yes, absolutely. And, sure, throw in the matching stick to whack the thing with. This endeavor wasn't cheap, we'll warn you. But, boy, was it worth it. Piglet arrived on our front porch on time as promised and was the life of the party until, well, until he wasn't.
People often refer to Phoenix as a young city, but our burgeoning metropolis has a pretty old soul. That's why our hearts delight when we have the opportunity to drive past what used to be the El Mural bar in west Phoenix. It's been years since anyone's hoisted a drink there, but the outside is still emblazoned with the beautiful work of Victor Caldee. Though of Cuban origin, the artist (with the help of Miguel Dominguez) brought together a bevy of Mexican icons: music and entertainment heroes Beatriz Adriana, Lola Beltran, Vicente Fernandez, and Jose Alfredo Jimenez, and revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The spirit of old Phoeniquera barrios is further connected to a past long gone via the depiction of a Mayan figure and pyramid surrounding El Mural's entrance.
For the past several years, the Desert Botanical Garden has thrown the best Dia de los Muertos party in town. This year, the festivities — held Halloween weekend and the first week of November — promise to be grander than ever, with performances, food, and hands-on crafts for the kids. Oh, and a mercado! We'll be sure to stop by to check out the wares offered by Bets and Nancy Nenad, two adventurous Phoenicians who travel through Mexico to bring back a fine, fun selection of skeletons in many forms — from plastic to papier-mâché. Hey, it's a living.
The Hispanic equivalent of the bat mitzvah or "Sweet 16" party, the quinceañera marks a Latina girl's coming of age. It's easy to find a respectable dress for the event, but only at a true tiendas de bodas can you get service to fit a quince's exact needs. Owner Ofelia Martinez understands the Hispanic market and, more importantly, understands young Hispanic women. Her shop carries a wide range of colorful gowns and specializes in "plus sizes," which means girls with curves won't have to stretch and tug their way into a stick-girl dress. Fluffy, traditional quinceañera dresses in shades of peach and robin's-egg blue are plentiful. If the quince is a modern gal, perhaps a more contemporary sheath dress — in ivory white to please la familia. The shop also does in-house alterations and carries latilla veils, rosaries, crowns, and gloves to accessorize the little princess. Whether the quince wants to look like Cinderella or J-Lo in The Wedding Planner, Ofelia has her covered.
At one end of this cavernous, winding mishmash of spaces is a room packed with all kinds of crosses — metal, tin, wooden. At the other end, there's a room full of hand-tooled gun holsters. In between is just about any Mexican tchotchke you can dream of: small wooden guitars, leather wallets, ceramic pots, embroidered dresses. We felt like we'd died and gone to Nogales. Beware: The neighborhood, across the street from the Arizona State Hospital, is in a rough part of town near Van Buren Street. Obviously the owners are aware of their surroundings. The place opens at 9 on weekdays, but whatever the time of day, you'll need to ring the bell before they'll let you in.